*Aid Atlanta World Aids quilt from last year picture above*
The tour is at its third stop. Clear buckets of gold wrapped condoms and mini-packs of lubes cover a shelf and desk. Guests are offered to take some as a tall woman finishes her speech. Before they leave, each is given a ticket to take an HIV test.
Within this tiny room inside the largest non-profit in the southeast fighting against HIV/AIDS, up to 30 people a day find out an answer to a simple question — “Am I positive or negative?”
For Atlanta and the state of Georgia, HIV/AIDS is one of the leading public health concerns for both the city and the state. AID Atlanta, a non-profit leading the fight against the disease, hosted an open house Nov. 29 to celebrate its 30 year anniversary.
In a quaint red brick building, rented from the Jewish synagogue next door, AID Atlanta has been saving lives since 1982. The organization has performed thousands of free HIV tests, and provided both prevention and medical services for those dealing with the disease.
Whether it’s prevention education, couples counseling or medical care assistance, the center does it all. For the anniversary, volunteers gave tours of the center, showing a behind-the-scenes look at what the organization does and its history. The event was one of many in Atlanta that commemorated the anniversary of World AIDS Day on Dec 1.
HIV/AIDS doesn’t kill. Instead, it weakens the body’s most important shield — the immune system — by attacking T-cells. These anti-bodies are responsible for fighting a host of diseases, bacteria and other viruses. Hence the name: Human Immunodeficiency Virus.
As a patient’s T-counts drop, he or she becomes vulnerable. Often, infected individuals will die from pneumonia, cancer or the most common cause of death — tuberculosis. This is why advocates are so passionate that everyone should know his or her status. It’s better to know what you are dealing with, then to not know at all.
And those who want to know are calling for answers.
When the Center for Disease Control isn’t answering calls to GA HIV/STD info line for those seeking information, AID Atlanta takes over. About 14,000 calls were received last year. Every week, from Monday through Friday, volunteers answer calls from not only Georgia, but across the nation and beyond, including Asia and Africa.
Volunteers answer questions about everything a caller could possibly need to know, often referring to the CDC and Department of Public Health for answers. Whether it’s about where to receive treatment, the means by which the disease is transmitted or where to go for free testing, the volunteers are there to inform.
At the clinic stop of the tour, guests were shown the process an individual goes through when he or she requests a test. First, a finger prick HIV rapid screening test is given. Results are available in 10 minutes. If the test comes back positive, then an additional confirmation test is issued — the OraSure swab test. After a sample is collected from the client’s mouth, it’s sent to an offsite lab. Two weeks later the result comes in, and if positive, then the programs at AID Atlanta kick in.
Of the approximately 1,000 individuals who are tested per month, 10 percent are diagnosed with HIV. Currently, the clinic takes care of the medical needs of about 400 HIV/AIDS positive individuals per month.
According to the Community Foundation for Greater Atlanta, the state of Georgia is ranked 4th in the number of new HIV/AIDS infection cases. In Atlanta, 26,000 live with HIV and 37 percent of those are diagnosed with AIDS, the advanced stage of HIV. Gay men represent half of those with AIDS. African Americans represent 77 percent of new AIDS cases in Georgia, with black women constituting 87 percent of all AIDS positive women in Atlanta. Fifty percent of new HIV cases come from young adults age 16-24.
With statistics like this, AID Atlanta has changed and adjusted to accommodate these needs that are split along demographics.
“AID Atlanta has shifted to meet the dynamics of the epidemic,” said Craig Washington, AID Atlanta prevention programs manager.
For AID Atlanta, white gay men, black gay men, and black women are the top three demographic priorities, said Washington. Because these individuals are hit hardest by the disease, the organization has crafted programs to target each group. This isn’t to create exclusion; anyone is welcome to attend an event of any program. However, there are nuances of being a certain race that dictate perhaps a different experience with the disease.
“We have to also acknowledge that a lot of people do connect with people that look like them,” said Washington. “There is some social separation. Some of that is just how people like to bond and some of that is due to some not so nice stuff. ”
One of the programs that AID Atlanta supports is the Evolution Project. This program provides a drop-in center for young black gay men age 18-28, the hardest hit by HIV/AIDS by number of new infections, to educate themselves about not only the disease, but also to provide emotional support to assist them in embracing who they are.
Chase Andrews, program coordinator at Evolution Project, held up a booklet to guests that had affirmations for these young men including:
“No one can stand between me and my happiness but me.”
As part of the Evolution Project, Andrews helped create and launch the “From Where I Stand” social media campaign. The message of the campaign is to de-stigmatize issues concerning being a young black gay man. The campaign has become part of educational outreach at local Atlanta colleges and universities like Georgia State, Morehouse, Emory and Clark Atlanta. Reaching out to post-secondary institutions is critical, because they contain young people who make a large chunk of the newly infected. And it seems to be paying off.
“Clark is going to be starting a safe space. With a safe space starting at a HBCU, amazing, amazing bit of work,” said Gail, an AID Atlanta risk prevention specialist and tour guide for the day. For confidentiality, Gail will be referred to by first name only.
A safe place is where people can “discuss ideas of gender, sexuality and orientation free from judgment and complete understood confidentiality, ” said Gail.
For Gail, who does condom demonstrations and has a supply of lube and dildos always within reach, education trumps any sort of awkwardness of the discussion of sex. She recalled a time when a case manager alerted to her to the fact that she was gesticulating with a dildo while talking.
Such forums for such discussions are important in a state where, as AID Atlanta program coordinator Cicely Richard said, there is a lack of education for young people and in general a lack of resources. Until Richard came to AID Atlanta, she didn’t know people as young as 13 could take an HIV test without parental consent.
Ask anyone at the center, what makes AID Atlanta as great as it is, and they will tell you — the people. Especially the volunteers. It’s typical of non-profits to struggle with funding issues, and keeping up with the demand for services is difficult due to the economy. The organization can’t take care of everyone. However, volunteers are crucial to the running of an organization that depends on people who give up their time for a greater cause.
Paul Singh, front desk receptionist and one of the most recognizable faces inside the center and out, has been with AID Atlanta for 15 years. Delivering a quick smile for everyone who walks through the door and an easy laugh, Singh enjoys being to help people even if at times it can be very painful. However, he is very disappointed by the fact that “kids,” young people, are coming in with a positive diagnosis.
“The amount of people still coming back positive, just floors me every day,” said Singh. “You would just think that it should have stopped.”
Michael Seabolt, former manager of HIV/STDS programs at AID Atlanta, having worked there for 16 years, remembered what it was like at the beginning of the epidemic. At that time, a diagnosis was indeed a life or death sentence. Michael and many others grieved as loved ones, friends, family or coworkers who were diagnosed with the disease died. In the beginning, AID Atlanta’s main focus was to “ease the suffering as much as possible of the people who were sick,” said Seabolt.
These sick individuals had nowhere to turn, because no one knew what the disease was, how to get it and treatment was non-existent. It took until 1996 for anti-viral drugs to become widespread in the treatment of those infected.
The sick were often “shunned and abandoned by their families because they were gay and had a disease that people didn’t know how it was transmitted,” said Seabolt. “So they weren’t allowed to go to their home and interact with their families.”
Almost three decades after the first outbreak, times have changed. HIV/AIDS is no longer an automatic death sentence and with the education of both infected and non-infected individuals about the disease, support has rallied around those affected.
As the tour wound down and guests, staff and volunteers enjoyed steaming squash casserole and lemon-crusted dessert bits, a piece of fabric stretched high on a wall over everyone’s head. A piece of the AIDS memorial quilt, “the world’s largest piece of folk art,” has a permanent home at AID Atlanta. Decorated with signatures of survivors of the disease and messages of optimism, it signifies the new era of what it means to live with disease and most importantly, love and support.
image by: Iris Eben